Letter to my undergraduate self: Becky Selwyn – ‘Be yourself and do things your way’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

In this post, we’re delighted to hear from Becky Selwyn, Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering.

Photo of Becky, the author of the blog post

What and where did you study? 

I studied my MEng in Mechanical Engineering here in Bristol, and as part of the course I spent a year studying in Saint Etienne (in France) for my 3rd year. I stayed here to do my PhD as well, and then realised that lecturing was the thing I wanted to do with my life so I’ve been here ever since!

Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 

Yes and no – the studying wasn’t too bad as I had been used to self-motivating and managing my own time from secondary school, and had been working full time during my gap year, but it was overwhelming being surrounded by so many new people all the time. I’m quite introverted, and had only attended relatively small schools, so the step change up to large halls of residence and 100-person lectures was a lot to deal with (I have no idea how UGs cope now that there are sometimes 450 students in a lecture theatre!). Eventually I made some friends to sit with in lectures and to spend time with outside lectures, and that helped me to manage the social overload I felt the rest of the time.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

I failed a unit in my final year, and was absolutely devastated. It didn’t stop me graduating, but my initial response was to contact the Unit Director and ask whether I could attempt the resit (obviously without it being recorded on my transcript) – I was desperate to show that I could pass the unit properly, even if it wouldn’t count towards anything. The Unit Director told me to get in touch after the resit period and they would send me a copy of the exam to try. Of course by the time the resit period arrived, my initial feelings about the failure had faded and I didn’t ask for the paper – I was busy enjoying the start of my PhD. It made me realise that initial responses to failure can be very intense, but context, patience, and time make it easier to accept and move on from.

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

In my first year, we had a group design project to make a cup dispensing machine, and my group won the competition. I’d suggested the design for the door, and we were the only group who had that type of mechanism and design, so I like to think that my idea helped us to win, even though our outer casing was held together with tape!

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I don’t remember receiving any feedback on my work other than a numerical grade and maybe a couple of vague words, but I do remember how I felt after various informal conversations with different members of staff. Some were really positive and left me feeling like I could take on any challenge. Others left me feeling that I didn’t belong here and should give up. I guess the impact of those conversations has influenced how I try to interact with people now – I saw that kindness, reassurance, and support went a long way towards helping me believe I could succeed on my own, so that’s what I try to provide for others. It also made me realise that feedback isn’t just a written comment on a piece of summative work – it’s everything that happens that makes you think about your work, and I try to help students see that too.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

My undergraduate self wouldn’t believe it, but I’d tell myself that I am enough, and should have more confidence to be myself. Everyone is different, and that is where our strengths come from, so stop seeing all the things you aren’t and start embracing all the things you are. Be yourself and do things your way, because it will eventually show others that they can be themselves and succeed on their own terms too.


If you’re a staff member or postgraduate student and would like to write own letter to your undergraduate self, please get in touch: study-skills@bristol.ac.uk



Letter to my undergraduate self: Kerrianne Orriss – ‘Everything is fixable as long as you’re willing to learn’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

In this post we’re introducing Kerrianne Orriss, Study Skills Tutor.

Kerrianne, the author of this blog post

What and where did you study? 

History BA (Hons) at St Andrews, Royal Holloway and then Liverpool (three universities in 4 years – don’t ask!)

Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 

Yes – to the extent that I changed universities twice. I kept worrying that either I wasn’t performing well enough, or I did not fit in with my peers (or both). At St. Andrews there were many privately educated students who had bucketloads of confidence and could (it seemed to my 18-year-old self) converse fluently in ancient Greek and Latin. In my first classical civilisation class, the lecturer repeatedly referred to Persia and I panicked – where was this place and why had I not heard of it? My head was a-blur with so many unfamiliar words and concepts that belonged to a different world. At my school, showing an interest in ancient languages (or anything that was fascinating to me!) meant instant ostracisation. At university I became aware that other students had a head start on me – not only in their places of education but in their exposure to other worlds.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

The many times I kept silent in a tutorial. I was petrified of the sound of my voice filling the austere silence of the room. I often had a theory to put forward but my inner voice told me it was wrong or stupid. I then felt like an idiot when someone else gave ‘my’ answer and was praised. I gradually learned that my opinions were just as valid as my peers and that my difficulty with thinking under pressure was not insurmountable. I found that I could prepare not only by doing the pre-reading for the tutorial but by anticipating the kind of questions and arguments that might arise.

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

As you can tell by now, I was not the most confident or self-aware student! I am proud that I developed my own techniques for studying as a dyslexic learner during a time when there was much less support for those with learning difficulties. I am proud that despite lacking confidence, I did start to believe in myself and speak up in classes. I am proud that I developed from a terrified nerd to a student who led study support groups in the third year and was confident in standing up for their beliefs. I am still a nerd, though.

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

Typically, the only feedback I remember is bad feedback; bad on behalf of both myself and the tutor. He merely wrote ‘17’ at the end of my essay and popped it in my pigeonhole so he didn’t have to talk to me. I collected it and cried because I thought I’d failed. I went to my personal tutor to say I was leaving the university as I wasn’t fitting in with the ‘clever students’, to which he replied that a 17 was a first, so what was I thinking? I left anyway. It amuses me, looking back, that I did not think to look at the grading system or ask for more substantial feedback for that essay. There wasn’t a Study Skills service back then – alas, I would have learned so much!

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

Oh so many things! Here are the highlights:

Don’t eat so many marmite sandwiches – yes they are cheap, but you won’t want to look at marmite for another 20 years.

Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about your mental health – it’s so normal to struggle with university life and to feel like you don’t fit in. Ignore negative comments about being a feminist, not eating meat and caring about the environment. You will find your tribe.

Everything is fixable as long as you’re willing to learn. I wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood, but I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self that you can catch up on missed education, and there’s not some kind of secret society that imbues members with world knowledge and super-intelligence!


If you’re a staff member or postgraduate student and would like to write own letter to your undergraduate self, please get in touch: study-skills@bristol.ac.uk



Student perspective: Staying motivated after receiving feedback

Steph, the author of the blog postby Steph Hook, French and Spanish student and Bristol Futures Advocate

We’ve all worked so hard on essay and exam preparation, but what happens afterwards? Receiving feedback can be both rewarding and helpful. However sometimes, it’s tricky not to feel disheartened if you receive feedback that you weren’t expecting. This happens to many of us at one point or another over the course of higher education, but it is important to stay motivated. The main thing from feedback is how we grow as learners.


1. Be kind to yourself

‘Be kind’ is something that has, rightly, been seen more over recent years. However, we often don’t offer ourselves the same courtesy of kindness that we would to others. I’m one of those people that reaches for a cup of tea in any situation, so personally I find myself putting the kettle on the moment that a mark has been released. That won’t work for everyone, it’s important to find your own cup of tea- if you can excuse the pun.

2. Look at the feedback comments, what do they mean?

It can be very easy after receiving a mark to close Blackboard and never look at the work again. However, the point of feedback is to help us grow as learners, which is what we are at university to do. Constructive feedback can be really helpful if you know how to use it. By accurately identifying what you need to improve on, you can increase the mark you receive on your next piece of work.

3. Focus on what went well too!

Human nature often means that we home in on the things that require improvement. A key feature of staying motivated is to focus on the positives too! Positive feedback is just as important as constructive comments, as it shows us what we should keep on doing. It’s also an acknowledgment for all the hard work that goes into a degree, which can be used as a boost for tackling future assignments.

4. Plan your next steps

To truly make use of feedback effectively, it’s not enough to simply read the comments. Think about what you’re going to do to give yourself the best chance of improvement in future pieces of work. Think about who you can talk to. Often, tutors will have office hours where you can speak to them. I’ve used this time before to ask specific questions on what I can do differently to gain more marks in the future. Do you have a friend on your course that you would feel comfortable talking to about the work? For more general advice, the Study Skills team have an array of tools which you can use independently to help yourself, from the Stepwise guide to writing essays, to Understanding essay verbs. It’s a resource on Blackboard that’s definitely worth a quick look at.

These are just a few things which help me to stay motivated after receiving feedback. Hopefully at least one of them will help you too.

Student perspective: The art of embracing dispiriting feedback

Photo of Tala, the author of the blog postby Tala Youhana, Law student and Bristol Futures Advocate

You’ve put in the substantial cycles of work, you’re certainly no stranger to long hours and late nights at your designated study spot, and you’ve exhausted all the caffeine in your system in hopes of finally receiving spotless reassuring feedback from your tutors. Nonetheless, the threshold you’ve been working tirelessly to meet, still feels out of reach. If this is you, then here are some healthy reminders to help you cope with and defeat the initial discouragement.

1. Accepting the mark is the first checkpoint

Oftentimes, we attempt to rapidly locate the mark before anything else in the feedback form, because it feels like glowing comments are distorted without a glowing mark. In my first year, I had professors disclose their own experiences with disappointing marks and remind us that such marks are not the be all and end all. Marks only go as far as a submission goes, so don’t let that dissuade you from the fact that you’re at university, because you worked hard to be here. Therefore, accepting the mark as a fair reflection of that particular submission would be a promising first step to moving forward. Ultimately, the larger the improvement, the more to be proud of when you’re done!

2. Interrogating the comments objectively involves personal initiative

Now that you’ve accepted your mark as a fair and accurate reflection of your work, you will be well-equipped to objectively evaluate the feedback. If you identify any issues, you will be able to investigate them further by preparing some questions. After this, you can make use of the many helpful resources available to you such as booking office hours with your tutors, revisiting feedback lectures, and perhaps even swapping papers with a peer to identify key feedback patterns, and ultimately gain a holistic understanding of the feedback given. Asking for help where needed reflects strong personal initiative and is actively encouraged.

3. There’s always room for improvement

No matter how you previously performed, it is advisable to keep your targets at least as high as they were prior to the feedback, if not higher! After all, feedback is far from failure, it is as the playful saying goes, “the breakfast of champions”. By visualising your targets clearly, you are then able to create a solid and detailed plan to improve on any skill gaps which you have encountered. The key point to stress here is that asking for help where you feel any doubts, either by consulting with your tutors or by making use of Study Skills and University resources, is a very important step forward, and one which you should be proud of.

To conclude, kindly note that this method is merely a guide and certainly not the only way of embracing feedback effectively- it is just what has worked for me when I had been hesitant with feedback in the past. The silver lining here is that feedback is meant to be critical, but when used wisely, it’s a chance to start over and progress!

Letter to my undergraduate self: Alison Marshall – ‘Freewriting is liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

Next up from the Study Skills team is Alison Marshall, Study Skills Tutor.

Photo of Alison, the author of this blog post

What and where did you study?

I went to Exeter and did a BA in Ancient History and Archaeology (largely because I liked watching Time Team on the telly and thought archaeology looked like fun). After that I did an MA in Medieval Studies and a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Bristol.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

Various family members went to university before me, so I had the advantage of being able to visit them and experience a bit of the culture. The biggest shock for me was going from a full timetable at college to having only a handful of contact hours per week at university. I’ve always struggled with self-discipline, so I slept late a lot and watched loads of rubbish daytime telly. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but in retrospect I think I’d have been a lot happier if I’d created a routine for myself and spent some of that ‘free’ time a bit more productively.

The other thing I found difficult to adjust to was suddenly being surrounded by lots and lots of people I didn’t know. Obviously I knew that was part and parcel of going to university, but I was excruciatingly shy and the thought of not knowing anyone was really daunting, so I buried my head in the sand. I wish I’d spent some time thinking about how I was going to make friends and settle in before I started – joining a few more societies (and actually going along to them) would have been a really good idea.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

My biggest failure happened just before I started university: I messed up my A-levels and missed out on my first-choice university due to an unfortunate combination of laziness, stupidity and bad luck. I tend not to let go of things quickly, so I beat myself up about it for a good few years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can see it all worked out for the best. I mean, what’s so good about Oxford anyway? I’d have had to work really hard, and knowing me that probably wouldn’t have gone very well! I ended up having a great time at Exeter and I loved my degree course. I also met my husband there – we’ve been together for 22 years and have three beautiful children – so you could argue that messing up my A-levels was the best thing I ever did. In essence, what I learnt is that every cloud has a silver lining: you might not see it for a while or sometimes you might have to look really hard, but it’s there.

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

Well, I survived an archaeological dig which involved camping on a wet and muddy hillside in Wales for four weeks. There was a copious amount of rain, boozing, late nights, early mornings and digging very big trenches with a mattock whilst still hungover. I fell down the spoil heap several times, accompanied by the wheelbarrow. It was character-building, but the word ‘camping’ brings me out in a cold sweat even now.

Ultimately, though, I’m most proud that I came away from university with a First. I wish I could say that I’d learnt from my A-levels and put in a huge amount of hard work, but that would be a lie. I left every essay until the last minute and had some horrible cramming sessions before exams. I made it much more difficult for myself than it needed to be! Thankfully, luck was on my side when it came to my final exams. I’m really proud of my degree result (if not, perhaps, the way I went about achieving it) and it helped put a few demons to rest.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

I ashamed to say that I can’t remember. I liked getting positive feedback because it made me feel pleasantly smug for a while. But most of the time I don’t think I really understood the feedback I was getting, and I was too shy to ask the lecturers to explain it to me. We didn’t have a study skills team to talk things through with, so I mostly just forgot about it.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

It would be tempting to go all mumsy and give myself a lecture about boys and booze, but nobody appreciates that sort of advice, so instead I’d probably tell myself to look into something called freewriting. I used to find academic writing completely agonising because I’d put pressure on myself to get every sentence perfect straight away. As a consequence I’d procrastinate, which led to lots of stressful last-minute essays. With freewriting you just splurge out a very rough first draft, then spend lots of time editing later on. It’s really liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me!


Letter to my undergraduate self: Lewis Coyne – ‘I learned to actually listen to the feedback I was getting’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

This month we hear from Lewis Coyne, Study Skills Tutor.

Photograph of Lewis, the author of the post

What and where did you study? 

I first studied at Cardiff University for a BA in Philosophy and English Literature, followed by an MA in Analytic and Modern European Philosophy. Then I switched to the University of Exeter, where I got an MRes in Science and Technology Studies and a PhD in social philosophy.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 

Yes – but I didn’t think so at the time. I had an elder brother at university, so broadly knew what to expect, and had travelled around Australasia on a gap year with friends, so thought I could look after myself. But on reflection I wasn’t fully comfortable with taking charge of and being accountable for my actions, as I had a terrible work ethic, appalling diet, and complete inability to get out of bed before 10am. This was amplified by the fact that, as a humanities student, I only had about two contact hours a day – meaning that my work was almost entirely self-directed and the structure of my day self-imposed. I really struggled to adjust to that, and as a result most of my first year was a mess! 

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

My biggest failure was probably all of my first term: I didn’t do much reading (a major problem when you’re studying English Literature!), which led to not going to seminars very often, which in turn led to some shocking last-minute essays that thoroughly deserved the low marks they received. (Just thinking about the poor people who had to mark them makes me cringe, even now.)

What I learned was that I had to take university seriously, and as part of that re-discover how to properly apply myself to my education. I hadn’t enjoyed school a great deal, and from the age of 14 tended to do just enough to get by without excessively disappointing my parents. This carried on through to the beginning of my undergraduate degree. But by the end of my first year I’d found, for the first time I could remember, that learning could be immensely enriching – even enjoyable. That late discovery probably explains why I carried on all the way to PhD level! I should note that I didn’t make that switch in isolation, though: I was helped enormously by the positive influence of my then-girlfriend, now wife, who is a far more diligent, switched-on, and all-round better person than me.

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

From those inauspicious beginnings I went on to win a departmental prize for the highest-performing undergraduate in Philosophy. (Needless to say, I wouldn’t have won it if first-year marks counted toward the final degree classification!) It was quite the turnaround, and I’m still proud of that now.

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I used to find getting feedback on anything I’d written a horrible experience, regardless of whether it was broadly positive or negative, in-person or in writing. I knew in the abstract that feedback was a useful, even necessary part of learning, but I just found receiving it excruciating. Over time, though, I learned to get over that anxiety and actually listen to the feedback I was getting, and this only came through the process of being given it repeatedly. For that reason I wouldn’t say there was a single best bit of feedback I received – it was nearly always useful in training me to be more comfortable with it. 

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self? 

The thing is, when I arrived at university I was such an arrogant twerp that I probably wouldn’t have listened to any advice, even from my future self. So what I would do instead is just talk to younger-me, explore what I enjoyed about the subjects I was studying, point out that it was a more stimulating form of education than school had ever been, and basically just try to gently encourage the process of self-development that my undergraduate years ended up being.

Student perspective: How to make the most of your Reading Week

Photo of Tiegan, the author of this postby Tiegan Bingham-Roberts, Bristol Futures Advocate

If you are in the Faculty of Arts like me, it is likely that you have an upcoming Reading Week! For most Arts students this is Monday 1st – Friday 5th March, although some of you may have a different date range. I hope this blog will be useful ahead of Reading Week to inspire some activities you can do in order to stay productive and make the most of this time. So, here are my are my tips below:


(R)EADING: the clue is in the name, catch-up on reading!

If you didn’t quite manage to finish one or more of the texts you have studied so far in TB2, now is the time to set aside some time to finish them. Or, if you have an upcoming text that is quite long and will require a big chunk of time to read, you can use this week to get ahead and at least start reading that text. As a final year English student myself, there is usually always one ‘long’ text per Unit each term that is significantly longer than most of the others (remembering George Eliot’s Middlemarch from my second year here…) and Reading Week is a great time to tackle these head on.

(E)NHANCE: enhance your Study Skills by attending sessions and creating a study schedule

Now that you will be aware of roughly how much time it takes you to prepare for all your TB2 Unit seminars each week, how long it takes you to watch the pre-recorded lecture materials (be realistic – with pausing to take notes or skipping back to hear something you weren’t paying attention to for a few seconds – can make a 30 minute recording take 45 minutes!), and how long it takes you to do your readings for each week, you can set aside some time to create a study schedule. I personally find that writing into my diary/calendar a specific day and time to watch lectures, as if they were live sessions, to be really helpful. I also write into my diary/calendar when I am going to complete the preparation for all of my seminars, by paying attention to my usual working patterns and when I am at my most productive and energised to study. If you would like any advice on creating a study schedule that will set you up for success in the latter half of TB2, you can book into a 1-1 tutorial or drop-in session with the Study Skills team here.

 (A)NALYSE: analyse your feedback from TB1 assessments to spot common areas to improve on for TB2 assessments

You are likely to have received some if not all of your feedback from TB1 assessments by the start of your Reading Week, so it is a great time to look over that feedback again in an impartial way now that you have had time to digest the grade itself. This is a task that you often do not have time for when in the throws of writing a piece of academic writing or doing academic research – it feels like a waste of time to look back to past essays when you have so many future deadlines! However, Reading Week gives you the time to do this, and it can seriously improve your prospects of getting higher grades in TB2 because you can make specific changes and improvements. My other blog post, about using feedback effectively and building academic resilience, can be found here if you are interested to read more about this.

(D)ECIDE: get ahead on TB2 assessments by deciding on your interest areas

Check the ‘’assessment information’’ tab on the Blackboard pages for your TB2 units, to see whether your tutor has uploaded their essay questions document. They will probably have done this by Reading Week, because deciding on an essay avenue to explore in the latter half of the term is quite a common task for students to undertake during Reading Week. Even if you are not sure on the text, concept, event, framework, or author/scholar you want to write on, perhaps you haven’t studied the one that looks the most interesting to you yet, you will have a vague idea about what interests you and excites you when looking at the reading list. It’s also a good time to start thinking whether any of the tutors’ questions sound interesting to you or whether you want to devise your own question.

(I)NVITE: send some Zoom social invitations to your friends or coursemates

Now we move on to the personal side of Reading Week rather than all of the academic things. It is important to use this break productively, of course, but it is just as important to enjoy yourselves and do things that you don’t manage to find the time for whilst participating in normal teaching weeks. One of these things might be to catch-up with your friends or coursemates. At the moment in Bristol, with national lockdown restrictions, it is difficult to meet up in-person due to the rules apart from if you have a support bubble or are meeting one person for socially distanced exercise. Considering this, Zoom meetings (or similar platforms) may be the most practical way of catching up. You could organise a quiz (throwback to lockdown number one…), have a dinner date, have an afternoon tea meeting, have a cooking/baking session, host a watch party, and more!

(N)OTHING: set aside time to do nothing, to rest and relax!

All of the above activities are useful and involve actively doing something – but please so set aside time to do nothing. It can feel aimless to think of doing ‘nothing’, so you can make this more distinct by choosing a specific day of the Reading Week which you will spend doing whatever you like, whether it is sleeping in all day, watching Netflix, having a pamper session, going for a long walk to a place you want to explore, having a killer workout session, listening to loud music, doing some online shopping, etc.  Reading Weeks are designed to offer extra time for being productive as well as resting, relaxing, and rejuvenating. Letting yourself get burned out is never fun, so do something that will help to prevent this and allow you have consistent energy levels in the latter half of TB2.

(G)ET ORGANISED: clean and tidy your bedroom and organise your notes

Tidy space = tidy mind. During the chaos of the teaching weeks and the exhaustion of getting back into the swing of things since Winter Break, especially since TB2 started so soon after January assessments for many of us, you may not have spent much time on cleaning, tidying, and organising. Personally, I find having a clean house (albeit difficult to maintain in student accommodation!) makes me feel a lot more comfortable to work in productively. I also find that organising all of the random pieces of paper, receipts, letters, returns labels, that I have somehow accumulated over a month or so to help clear my mind. When you know that your room is tidy and contains nothing that doesn’t belong in there, it is usually a more attractive space to use. Reading Week is not only about replenishing your mind, you can also replenish the physical area around you.

Finally, thank you for reading, and have a great week! Do you have any other suggestions for How to Make the Most of your Reading Week? Feel free to share them in the comments section.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Anna Wallace – ‘Making better choices got me back on track’

In a nod to the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

This month we’re talking to Anna Wallace, Admin Assistant in Library Services.

What and where did you study? 

English and Philosophy at Leeds University. 

Did you experience a culture shock when you started University? 

Most definitely! Although I had had a year out after my A’Levels and lived abroad in a large city, I wasn’t used to finding my feet in big social groups, and this was a real challenge for me. Having grown up in a rural town with a tight-knit group of friends, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself at the time to make instant friendships. I’ve realised since that friendship usually comes in time and often when you don’t expect it. 

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

My second year at Uni was a juggle of socialising, working and studying, possibly in that order, which certainly reflected in some of my marks! It meant that I pulled quite a few all-nightersmissed a couple of essay deadlines and received some late submission penalties. I also didn’t feel up to speed with the reading, or completely engaged with my subjects. But on the plus side I was able to pay for my University living costs and have a few memorable nights out! 

By my third year, I realised that I couldn’t juggle everything, and if I was going to leave Uni with a reasonable degree, then I would need to prioritise my time better and focus more on my studies. In doing that, I would say that my final year was my most enjoyable, I finally engaged with my course and felt all the happier and more content for it. No essays were late, I was up to date with the reading and felt more confident to contribute in my seminars. 

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

For me, the fact that I stuck with it, pulled my socks up in my final year and made some better choices which got me back on track is probably what I feel proudest of. 

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I received a good solid first for an essay on American Literature in my final year. It was an essay that I remember grappling with during the Christmas holidays, with limited resources to use (this was in the days before Google and Wiki!!). I felt very unsure about what I submitted, as I had struggled so much, so to receive positive feedback made all the effort feel worthwhile and was a confidence boost in my ability to build an argument without relying heavily on secondary texts. 

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self? 

If I were to go back and do it all again, I would manage and prioritise my time, which is no easy feat for an Arts student with just a few contact hours each week. I would complete the reading, and (perhaps most importantly) I would find a thread in my unit choices, so that I was building on knowledge each year, and choosing the units that I enjoyed, not the ones that I thought I ought to be good at. 

Student perspective: Using feedback effectively and developing your academic resilience

Photo of Tiegan, author of this blog postby Tiegan Bingham-Roberts, Bristol Futures Advocate

As the second half of TB1 approaches, there is one thing beginning to loom on our minds and creep up on us – the upcoming assessment periods in December and January. Whether those assessment deadlines are for essays, group projects, or exams, it is important to approach them with a sensible approach of incorporating feedback from previous assessments (at University, school or work) and a skill for academic resilience. Therefore, I hope this blog will help you think about how best to utilise feedback to help your future assessments.

When I was in my first year at University, I was terrified of having to complete my first assessment. I had taken a year out prior to starting University and felt like my academic reading and writing skills were a distant memory of the past, with little hope of being resurrected in time for the approaching deadline. I knew that most of the other students on my course felt the same way too, so this is completely normal.

If you are in your first year right now, you may not have had the opportunity to receive feedback on University work yet. If this applies to you, it might be worth considering ‘feedback’ as any information you have been given about something you have done in the past, and this feedback can be from friends, family, work colleagues, managers, teachers, etc. and is equally as valid as feedback from University tutors. If you think about feedback from general life, you can start to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Once you have a grasp on your general strengths and weaknesses in relation to academia, these can help to inform your approach to assessments. You can identify these by asking the following questions to yourself:

  • What are three words my friends or family would use to describe my approach to academia?
  • Why did I get a better grade in one subject at school over another?
  • How would my teachers describe me to my University tutors?

If you are in your second year upwards right now, you will have some form of feedback from your first year which is usually available on Blackboard. If you cannot find any feedback in the grades section of Blackboard, you can contact your School or Faculty asking them to locate these documents for you or to point you in the right direction. If the type of assessments you did meant you did not receive a great deal of feedback, it is worth remembering the smaller and more informal feedback that you might have received. Every time you communicate with a tutor, lecturer, or your peers is an opportunity for feedback – such as when people acknowledge your contributions during classes and agree or disagree with you. All of these incidents can be beneficial to approaching your future work, as you have a sense of what sorts of things you are doing well, and which things need improvement.

It is easy to fall into the trap of feedback avoidance – perhaps because you were not particularly proud of the piece of work so you do not want to go back and revisit it, perhaps because it just feels like too much effort to trapse through Blackboard to find the right document, or perhaps because you are worried it will confuse your new assessment topic. I have definitely been guilty of this in the past but over time I have learnt to develop my academic resilience, which makes looking at feedback a lot less daunting and a lot more productive.

What do I mean by academic resilience? I mean that when you receive negative feedback, you are able to digest it and work upon it within a reasonable amount of time, without allowing it to throw you off track to achieve your academic goals. You can develop this important skill by doing the following:

  • Try to remove your personal attachment to the piece of work you have received negative feedback on. Although you might have poured blood, sweat, and tears into the piece of work during the time leading up to the deadline, and you may have celebrated after pressing the bittersweet ‘submit’ button, those feelings should not act as a barrier after that point.
  • Try to turn the phrase ‘negative feedback’ into ‘constructive feedback’ – if you are able to use the feedback to better your grades and your academic development at University, to graduate having learnt something new which you did not know how to do perfectly at the beginning, then ‘negative feedback’ is not negative at all, it is actually something positive!
  • Try to be balanced in your response, there is almost always something positive amidst the sea of feedback that rushes towards you as you open the document. It is easy to focus on the negatives because you want to know what you did wrong, why you did not get a higher mark, but the positives are equally important in letting you know what you did right and should replicate in the next assessment.
  • Try to change your mindset from ‘fixed mindset’ to ‘growth mindset’. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your abilities, intelligence and talents are just fixed traits – that there is no point trying to get better at something because you simply cannot do it. If you have a growth mindset, you do not believe that your abilities, intelligence and talents are fixed entities – instead, you get better at something through effort and persistence.

After developing this academic resilience, you will be able to use your feedback more effectively. You could make a document with all of the feedback you have collated in your academic career so far, going back as far as you are able to gather information for. With this document, you can then draw connections between the feedback to highlight any common themes. If more than one person has given you feedback on a particular point, then it is clearly something you need to work on, such as by having a meeting with your personal tutor, attending a tutorial or a workshop with Bristol Study Skills, or going to your PASS sessions. Likewise, if there is something you are consistently being praised for, then you can categorise this as one of your strengths and feel confident about that aspect of your assessment.

If you want to speak to me or another Bristol Futures Advocate about how to use feedback effectively and develop your academic resilience, feel free to attend one of our student-led drop-in sessions by following the page here and finding the dates and times for your Faculty.

Best of luck!